Dr Tim Williams – Senior Lecturer in Clinical Pathology at the University of Cambridge Veterinary School

What or who inspired you to become a vet?

I actually wanted to be a doctor when I was younger, probably inspired by visits to my Dad’s place of work (he worked as a maintenance manager in a local hospital). I sometimes got to go behind the scenes in operating theatres and other areas which definitely got me interested in the medical world. I then did some work experience in a vet practice as part of the Duke of Edinburgh Award, and I quite liked the mix that veterinary work offered, so from then on I pursued veterinary medicine as a career.

What is your current job? Do you hold clinics as well as carrying out research?

I am a Senior Lecturer in Clinical Pathology at the University of Cambridge Veterinary School, and a specialist clinical pathologist in clinical pathology laboratory at the Queen’s Veterinary School Hospital. Alongside this, I still do a bit of first opinion practice in Meldreth in Cambridgeshire, so I can occasionally be found vaccinating puppies and squeezing anal glands!

What drew you to your field of study and what motivates you to continue?

I’ve always enjoyed cytology and clinical pathology in general since I was a student, and I think our clinical pathology lecturer, Butty Villiers, taught us the subject very well, which made me enjoy it much more in practice. I particularly enjoyed the thrill of making a cytological diagnosis down the microscope and found that it was a good way to impress clients and to carve out a niche for yourself in your practice because nobody else liked using the microscope! In terms of my field of research, I was drawn to working on renal disease when I started my PhD. This investigated the link between chronic kidney disease and hyperthyroidism in cats. I had seen lots of these cases when I was in practice, so was really interested to try to investigate links between the diseases. In Cambridge, I spent a period of sabbatical leave in the Karet Lab at the School of Clinical Medicine and there I developed an interest in extracellular vesicles (EVs), which are now the focus of my research. EVs appear to have lots of different functions and roles in the body, and I’m really interested to try and explore how they can be used as a source of biomarkers in our animal species and also how they might help to explain the pathophysiology of some diseases in humans and animals.

Discuss the impact your research has had on the profession. How have those in general or referral practice benefited from your research?

Probably one of the major findings from my PhD was that iatrogenic hypothyroidism in cats has detrimental effects on the outcome of treated hyperthyroid cats. Previously vets did not tend to worry about over-treating hyperthyroid cats because the cats never seemed to show many classical clinical signs of hypothyroidism (mostly extrapolated from dogs). However, our data suggested that iatrogenic hypothyroidism resulted in a worsening of renal function and a reduction in survival time. Our findings led to a change in how vets in practice treat hyperthyroid cats, including the more careful titration of anti-thyroid medications to avoid over-treatment and associated detrimental effects.

Has your research served as the foundation for other studies or developments in the field, and what will happen after your study is complete?

Our work on hypothyroidism in cats has led to a number of other studies, including some of our own, that have attempted to improve the diagnosis of iatrogenic hypothyroidism in cats and also to reduce the incidence of iatrogenic hypothyroidism following radioiodine therapy.

Tell us a little about your own experience. What does your research mean to you personally and what have you gained from it?

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to ‘own’ some of my research projects as a PhD student, and this gave me the confidence to take forward my research when I started my academic position in Cambridge. I really enjoy the thrill of making a new research finding, although that often comes at the time of statistical analysis and number crunching, which is a bit less ceremonious than the classic ‘Eureka’ moment that everyone envisages!

What is your favourite aspect of your work, and what has been your most important/surprising finding?

In my current role, I really enjoy the fact that I do a combination of clinical work, research and teaching. Sometimes it can feel a little overwhelming trying to keep all the different plates spinning at once, but overall I think I would rather that than just do one of those things. Also, some of my best research ideas come from being on clinics or questions that our very bright students ask. Research keeps things fresh too, and it’s exciting to be on the cutting edge of science/vet medicine.

What does PetSavers offer the profession in your opinion?

PetSavers offers a means to financially support clinically applicable veterinary research, that will hopefully make a difference to the health and welfare of our pets. Unfortunately not many other funding bodies offer this, and government funding through research councils will not usually fund research into companion animal diseases. Therefore, PetSavers really is vital for ongoing research in these species.

Away from the practice and bench, how do you spend your spare time?

I try to spend my time outside of work doing sports like badminton, squash, and tennis, and I also try to keep fit by running on a regular basis at the local Parkrun. I live in London so I always try to make the most of the local theatres, museums and restaurants too.

What advice would you give to vets considering carrying out clinical research for the first time?

This is definitely possible. Cambridge offer a VetMD which is designed to allow vets in practice to complete a doctorate in research, although you don’t have to be completing a qualification to take part in clinical research. If you have a research idea, I would suggest approaching someone in academia to talk to them about it. They should be able to support you in developing your ideas and writing grant proposals. In my experience, most academics are very collaborative and willing to help.